Van Zweden: A leader more dour than charismatic

Van Zweden: A leader more dour than charismatic


norman lebrecht

May 27, 2018

From a farewell review of the Dallas Symphony’s music director:

…this weekend’s three performances mark the end of a decade-long tenure during which the orchestra reached a high point in its history. In spite of the changes roiling the international musical community, the Dallas Symphony clearly reached a new level of excellence under van Zweden. Although one could quibble over the details week to week or fine points of the orchestra’s general direction, van Zweden is leaving an orchestra in fine condition to move forward and to enhance its position in the local community and in the larger world of music. The Dallas Symphony continues to function as an essential and, indeed, central element of cultural life in Dallas and the surrounding region.

For his part van Zweden, a podium leader more dour than charismatic, has emerged during his decade here as a key player on the international scene; largely unknown to the broad base of the classical music audience when he arrived in Dallas, he will, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, move into one of the most visible positions in the music world, with all the opportunities and pitfalls that position implies. He will step onto a podium once occupied by Bernstein, Boulez and Mahler, and into scrutiny far more intense than any he experienced in Dallas….

Read on here.



  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    This maestro has the unique position to make this orchestra one of the most respected worldwide. It will be interesting to see how he tailors repertoire past, present and future into his programming during his tenure. He is a terrific musician, and if he can do in NY as he did in Dallas, spells success. That, with a first-rate administration, should lead the way.

    • Pierre says:

      One of the most respected orchestras in the world ? Have you ever been to Europe ? Nobody’s heard of the Dallas Orchestra here.

      • No one really says:

        Pretty sure, if you actually read Jeffrey’s post, he was referring to the NY Phil not Dallas (who Europe should know about, BTW).

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Nope. Will never happen. I just say how I feel. But thanks, Doug. Europe has certainly heard of the Dallas Symphony, as far back as the Eduardo Mata years. It depends on who one talks to. If they haven’t, it doesn’t matter. The DSO thrives and exists.

        • Jeffrey Biegel says:

          Oh–was referring to the New York Philharmonic as one of the most respected orchestras in the world. But while we’re at it, add Dallas.

      • J. Froberger says:

        Big mistake. I wittnessed the DSO during its 1997 European tour. Concertgebouw Amsterdam. A very fine performance of Roy Harris’ third symphony. Conducted by Litton. In my collection I have recordings of Eduardo Mata conducting the DSO. (for example the complete “sombrero”, de Falla…..the last work he performed with the Rotterdam Philharmonic before the planecrash….)

  • John Borstlap says:

    In our world of kitsch, superficial froth and silly wrapping paper, maturity can come across as ‘dour’ but it may be a much-needed compensation for a performance culture suffering from narcisistic nonsense.

    Interestingly, the new work by Leshnoff – a violin concerto – was received positively and an organic return to more traditional (tonal) values noticed. Obvioulsy this is a way ‘forward’, in the sense of improvement. I look forward to a recording.

  • eduardo marturet says:

    Jeffrey Biegel is a great artist himself, he doesn’t need to use flattery to line up a gig…!

  • eduardo marturet says:

    May 27, 2018 at 3:18 pm
    Cut him some slack. He’s trying to line up a gig with them.

  • phf655 says:

    I am a New Yorker but was at the concert performance of Die Walkure in Dallas that preceded the Beethoven Ninth by several days. I heard an often mellow, measured, expansive reading of the score that broke into something more driven only at a few appropriate places – such as the end of Act II and the ride of the Valkyries,. The stamina of the orchestra was simply staggering – this was perhaps the only time I have heard a live performance of the tranquil pages of Wotan’s farewell and the more dramatic pages of the Magic Fire Music that were not marred by cracked brass notes and ragged ensemble delivered by exhausted players. While perhaps lacking the unique tone color and personality of each of the American ‘big five’, this is a clearly world class orchestra.
    Like many people, news of the Van Zweden appointment to the New York Philharmonic left me puzzled, and the performances I have attended there so far, a relentlessly overdriven Beethoven 5, a somewhat incoherent Mahler 5, and a concert performance of Act I of Die Walkure that was far inferior to the Dallas performance, have done little to change my mind. I hope we in New York soon get to hear the side of Jaap that was revealed the other day.

    • Mark says:

      I am still hopeful one day I’ll hear something that will justify the faith of the NYPhil
      management in him, but so far, nothing terribly special …

      • John Borstlap says:

        It seems that you have been missing-out on quite some things. This may help catching-up:

        Wagner / Parsifal concert performance 2011 / Netherlands Radio Orchestra

        1st act:

        2nd act:

        3rd act:

        NB: As for the abilities, musical and otherwise, necessary to bring-off a Wagner opera well:

        “It [a Wagner opera] is a scale that has no parallel elsewhere in music, least of all in the symphonic literature, and it makes these works exceedingly difficult to sustain in performance. Only too easily can they sag and become boring. Seeing that they do not, makes hughe demands on the conductor. The first thing it requires of him is a quite abnormal mastery of architectonics. Not only must he have an assured grasp of these enormous wholes – the whole of each work and the whole of each act – he must also have a command of detail that can relate it to the wholes without sacrificing anything of it, can show it as interesting, expressive, beautiful in itself and at the same time a functioning part of the architecture. When this happens the whole is kept before us in every moment while the music seems to unfold with inevitable rightness. […] Because of this unique range of demands it has always been the greatest Wagner conductors who were the greatest conductors – Richter, Mahler, Toscanini, Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, Karajan – though they were not always the best conductors of Bach, or Mozart, or even Beethoven.” Bryan Magee: ‘Aspects of Wagner’, in the chapter: Wagner in performance.

        This live recording of Parsifal shows that Van Zweden has all those capacities…. so, NY is in for quite some surprises, in spite of the sniffing arrogance lurking in the narrow shafts between the skyscrapers.

    • monsoon says:

      Because most conductors are locked into several multi-year contracts at any given time, I suspect filling these jobs is pretty hard unless you’re willing to let the post be vacant for three to five years. Orchestra management seems to think any warm body is preferable to a long vacancy.

      I don’t think it makes much sense artistically — it’s all about marketing a cult of personality around the conductor. Hiring musicians is done by committee, programing by admin and whatever guest artists want to play. Except for some truly special conductors, I question just how much having a single person conduct 10 to 15 concerts a season really benefits an orchestra, especially one of New York’s caliber. (Chicago and Boston recently had long gaps without a MD; things didn’t fall apart.)

      If I were president of an orchestra, I would just have an artistic advisor and multi-year three-week residencies with several conductors (on top of guest conductors).

  • BillG says:

    He is a demanding conductor from the Reiner mold. He had a nasty time with musician over hiring a principal horn. Tact is not one of the tools in his kit bag to get the music he wants. This will be interesting to see how it plays out in NY.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A tactful conductor is something like a vegetarian butcher, or an atheist pope, or a humane dental surgeon.

      • BillG says:

        There is a thing called a “toxic leader”. It tends to inhabit the military and college football. There are leaders who can bring excellence from their people by setting strict standards and enforcing them. This can be done if the leader is an ass hole or a leader.

      • Velvet Boxer says:

        Or an intelligent and prescient Lefty.

      • Bruce says:

        Cute, but untrue.

  • Ben says:

    I am yet to find any Jaap concert worth remembering, let alone impressed.

    Well, strike that. I did remember that one concert when he conducted the Berliner. One of the finest orchestras in this solar system performing a piece that these musicians could play perfectly even if they are in comatose. The results: Likely the most boring, dry, weirdly paced Brahms 1st I have ever heard.

    Mirga’s on her way to the Big Apple. Borda (??) can’t wait to make history by naming the 1st female music director among the Big 5. If you ain’t good enough, at least be different enough.

    • Pedro says:

      I am just leaving the Seine Musicale near Paris where I have heard a superb performance of Mahler 9 by the Helsinki Philharmonic and Mälkki. The orchestra was excellent but Mälkki should get a better one. She is a very good conductor indeed.

    • BillG says:

      As orchestra like the Berlin usually gives a visiting conductor about 5 minutes on the podium. (According to discussions in another venue.) A conductor not up to their standards generally gets ignored with the group plays as the normally to.

    • Robin Smith says:

      Easy. A Bruckner 5 with the CBSO at Symphony Hall was absolutely magnificent. One of the best performances of anything I’ve ever heard.

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        When that piece is great, then you’re hearing something truly great. I saw Karajan/Vienna Phil. play the living daylights out of Bruckner 5 in the Musikverein in 1981. I’m glad to hear that van Zweden can do it too. His Bruckner 8 recording is fantastic.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Van Zweden took over a concert for the ill Jansons in 2013. From the press:

      Der satte, reife, vollgesogene Ton der Streichergruppe ist prägendes Element des Abends – Fans des vielbeschworenen „deutschen Klangs“ müssen sich keine Sorgen machen. Unglaublich majestätisch heben die Streicher über dem pulsierenden Ostinato der Pauke an, wie selbstverständlich legt sich Guy Braunsteins Solovioline im zweiten Satz darüber. Unentwegt bauscht sich das musikalische Gewebe auf und nimmt sich wieder zurück, ein Organismus, blutdurchpulst und doch klar geschichtet – bis hin zur Monumentalität. Van Zwedens Brahms-Bild ist eindrucksvoll, doch er sieht in ihm vor allem einen Titanen, einen romantischen Riesen.

      A star is born. Jaap van Zweden springt für den erkrankten Mariss Jansons ein, führt die Berliner Philharmoniker durch Bartóks vertracktes „Konzert für Orchester“ und schließt mit einem begeistert gefeierten Brahms.

      Es war eine eindrucksvolle Visitenkarte, die der Niederländer am Freitag in der Philharmonie hinterließ, und es darf nicht wirklich verwundern, daß er von manchen Kennern der Szene bereits als Nachfolger von Sir Simon Rattle gehandelt wird, der ja seinen Vertrag nicht über 2018 hinaus verlängert hat.
      Van Zweden hat, später auch im zweiten Teil bei der Ersten von Brahms, die Partitur vor sich liegen, obgleich er sie nicht braucht. Er weiß um jedes Detail dieses genialisch orchestrierten Spätwerkes, und er weiß, noch die kleinste rhythmische Verschiebung, noch die feinste Klangfarbenschattierung den Philharmonikern zu entlocken.

      Statt nur das Bombastische der Ersten Symphonie von Brahms herauszustellen, sucht, und findet, van Zweden immer wieder die zärtliche, die weiche, die anmutige Seite des gebürtigen Hamburgers, etwa in dem sehr schönen, expressiven Meno-allegro-Schluß (das Holz!) des Eröffnungssatzes und im Oboen-Solo (dem Himmel nah: Jonathan Kelly; Albrecht Mayer, der Ex-Bamberger, hatte frei) des Andante sostenuto. Großartig, wie immer, Stefan Dohr am Horn, nachzuhören beispielsweise im leidenschaftlichen Hornruf zu Beginn des Finales.

  • collin says:

    New York is a tough town, it was for Boulez as it was for Bernstein. New Yorkers demand perfection without being perfect themselves, it is a very cynical, insecure place.

    I always find it hypocritical that management always names Boulez with pride, when in fact, he barely lasted a couple of seasons.

    Borda fired Masur, another dour figure. She is already angling for a big splash of an appointment. Zweden will not last just because he is not splashy enough for New York, just as Alan Gilbert was not.

    But it doesn’t matter, the classical music audience is, literally, dying. It doesn’t matter which young hot chick Borda will appoint.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I can’t say I know much about van Zweden. I do have two excellent recordings by him.

    First off , his Bruckner 8 is my personal favorite one in my collection (and that includes the usual suspects [Karjan, Giulini, etc.], as well as a few not-so-usual suspects). It’s with one of the lesser known Dutch orchestras, but they play really well and the sound is excellent (Challenge Classics, I believe – I should dig it out).

    Second, his Dallas Mahler 6 is really good. It’s a low level recording, so you do have to turn it up more – low level recordings sound really dull if you don’t add more volume. Once you do, everything snaps into perspective. His is definitely one of the better Mahler 6 recordings in my extensive collection of that particular work.

    Regardless, I hope the best for him in New York.

  • AdamL says:

    I’ve worked with Jaap in two different orchestras over the course of my career, and dread the weeks he’s standing on the podium. I’ve always found his methods to be dictatorial rather than trusting and supportive, and the orchestra can end up sounding tentative and unsure of what he actually wants. The pet peeve of many an orchestral musician is when conductors attempt to fix minor intonation problems… usually this ends up making matters much worse. Rather than trusting the musicians to address issues that might come up he meddles and usually becomes furious when things don’t get fixed because, quite frankly, he has a pretty average ear. It’s a very old school approach to conducting…. by scaring musicians into submission, you don’t create great music.

    • Gareth Jones says:

      These remarks match pretty closely what I heard several times in Hong Kong – to the point where I stopped attending concerts. I’m happy he’s leaving, frankly.

      • John Borstlap says:

        How is it then possible that he built-up the orchestras of HK and Dallas to their current level? That the players of the NY Phil unanimously choose him, after a couple of guest appearances? That the Dutch Radio Orchestra has feted triumphs under his direction, especially with concert performances of Wagner operas which are the most difficult for conductors? That his debuts with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic were successes? That his Bruckner CD’s have been received with enthusiastic accolades? Some ears hear things that for other organs seem to be inaccessible.

        • Gareth Jones says:

          Er… what current level of the HK Phil are you speaking of, John? It was and remains a decent, diligent band – but I’m not sure that it’s really that much better than the HK Sinfonietta.
          I can’t speak to all of the other orchestras because I live in HK but all I’m saying is that my experience here resonates with those of the orchestral player. I’m happy you’re fortunate enough to hear better things

          • Nick2 says:

            I agree with John Borstlap. From what I have read, the Hong Kong musicians enjoy working with him and what he is achieving with the orchestra – but I accept I have not heard this directly as I do not know any of them. I don’t live in Hong Kong but I have been to several JvZ concerts there. It seems Gareth Jones and I have been at different concerts, for I think the Hong Kong Phil has become very impressive under his direction. When you compare its development under Atherton (almost non-existent) and de Waart (far more precision and interesting programming), the standard now is at a very high level. Anyone suggesting it is not should listen to some of the JvZ HKPO Ring cycle recordings on Naxos. The first three have been issued. Gotterdammerung was recorded in January and I believe will be released before the end of the year.

            On the other hand, I recently heard JvZ at one concert with the NYPO on its March Asian tour. With Yuja Wang as soloist in the Brahms First Concerto, I expected a great deal. I found it a major disappointment, and not only because of Ms. Wang’s ultra slow tempi. The orchestral playing was sometimes ragged and the balance was so out of whack that there were many sections where I could see the pianist giving her all but could barely hear her – and I was seated in the middle of the stalls. The Rite of Spring was a major improvement, but put the HKPO into a venue with as fine acoustics instead of the dreadful Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, and on the basis of what I heard it would be hard to pinpoint much difference in quality.

            That said, he has not yet taken over the NYPO. Oh, and by the way, when you say he is leaving, are you referring to Dallas or Hong Kong? Wasn’t his Hong Kong contract extended through to 2022?

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Nick2:

            JvZweden is leaving the Dallas Symphony but will remain MD in Hong Kong, because he loves working with them and the feeling is mutual.

        • ADAML says:

          I have actually had the displeasure of working with Jaap in the HK Philharmonic, and although I can’t speak for every musician in the orchestra, there are many many members who do not like him, his methods, nor his bullying. The decision to extend his contract does not rest with the players of the HKPO, but is decided by a board of directors…. like most other orchestras around the world….

  • Anon says:

    I always find his music temperament a bit too serious and heavy, lacking in general the sense of joy and poetry. Perhaps it has something to do with his personality.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The variery within the classical music repertoire is so wide that it is impossible for any performer to be best in all categories. And it is not desirable: performers should cultivate what they can do best. Additionally, Van Zweden is a more German-type of conductor, his country being culturally very close to Germany, so no wonder he is excellent for the German repertoire. Nobody asks for joy and poetry in a Bruckner symphony.

      • Bruce says:


        “Nobody asks for joy and poetry in a Bruckner symphony.”

        Are you sure you meant to say that?

        • John Borstlap says:

          It may be a bit charged, but ‘joy’ in Bruckner is those terrible boorish scherzi, and ‘poetry’ the profound musings about the universe as in the Adagio of Symph nr 8. Compare that with the joy of Schumann symph 3, 1st mvt, or the poetry of Brahms vl concerto middle mvt.

  • Novagerio says:

    “Nobody asks for joy and poetry in a Bruckner symphony” – What an utterly idiotic statement.

  • anon says:

    The bottom line is this:

    1) JvZ was hired because he was thought to conduct the warhorses better than Alan Gilbert.

    2) Thus far, the New York critics think he is doing worse than Gilbert on the classics. The audience, in any case, has not been impressed.

    3) He doesn’t officially take over until next season. So his appearances thus far in NY and his Asia tour are really a warm-up, a getting-to-know-you for when he officially starts.

    Let us wait until the season opener of the 2019 season.

    Then all bets are off.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Yes, that makes sense to me. Give some time.

      N.Y. has never been a great Bruckner town – usually leaving that to guest orchestras. That said, I don’t know how much Bruckner Kurt Masur conducted there. I could well be wrong.

  • Ben says:

    I rarely go back this far to slam someone, but Jaap deserves the beating….

    Re: HK Phil — I know two people playing there who are the “no dirty laundry outside of the family” kind. But deep down, Jaap is not well liked. His abusiveness is the worst keep secret, just like Levine’s deal.

    Re: Jaap is an total moron in his official marketing material with NY Phil @ Lincoln Center. He appears like some European old lad navigating thru streets of some unknown New York City location, steam pipes and orange maintenance/construction cones everywhere. Wow that’s the image of NY Phil to be shown? A tough guy coming to The New World?

    Try looking at Yannick, who’s also the new man with MET. The marketing material shows him standing with utmost confidence and authority, but approachable and down-to-earth, in front of the MET building.